Archive for February, 2000

Thursday, February 3rd, 2000


There are those who doubt Dylan, question The Beatles, wonder if Elvis wasn’t some truck driving shitkicker who lucked out. In the canon of pop, however, there is one absolute article of faith – that Abba were actually very good. No, really, actually, they were. Elvis Costello has praised the “melancholy” flourishes of their songs, Ian MacCullough has declared that “Dancing Queen” would be one of his Desert Island Discs. None of these venerable post-punksters are afraid to pit themselves against what they imagine to be some consensus to the contrary and state that Abba are actually very good. Really, actually.

This “revisionism” reached an apotheosis back in 1992. It took the form of kitsch, granted, with the rise of Australia’s Bjorn Again, Erasure covering “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” and the entire gay wing of the pop community rising in a tongue-in-cheek pro-Abba frenzy that in interviews swiftly gave way to the contention that, seriously, that Abba were very good.

But no one ever said Abba were bad. Not even during punk. In 1977, The Vibrators gleefully told Melody Maker they were Abba fans. Sid Vicious, an admirer, related how he’d approached Frida and Agnetha at an airport for their autographs (terrorised, they fled). In the mid-Eighties, Paul Morley wrote that we should be talking of music as post-Abba rather than post-punk. No one dared expose themselves for a grey clod incapable of irony by opining that Abba were anything other than actually very good.

But Abba were not good. Abba were insidious. With their gauche dance routines, air of wholesome innocence, they’re fondly remembered as exponents of a now-lost naivety in pop. But they were far from naive when it came to the business of business. Setting up a publishing company in Sweden, they struck a deal whereby for each different country they would be under contract to a different record company and never for more than three years. They avoided big tours, preferring one-offs like a gig at the Royal Albert Hall, which generated hysteria, with three million people hunting 11,000 tickets. When they did appear live, they performed with the co-ordinated efficiency of automatons, ditto their photo appearances. In interviews, Bjorn and Benny talked of little but sales and market penetration. Benny would later work as a business consultant in England. Abba were a machine – it speaks volumes that the most damaging schism that developed in the band was when Frida (the red head) was alleged to have criticised Agnetha (the perfectly-arsed blonde) for her poor punctuality! When The Sun tried to publish this, Abba slapped an injunction on them.

Furthermore, Abba guaranteed worldwide exposure through promo videos, then still a novelty. Abba were not the last innocents but the first of the New Pop Evil, corporate, worldwide, prefiguring MTV and the marketing machinations of today’s pop industry by yonks. Musically, they were insidious too. Shapely, redolent of stripped pine, low-fat yoghurt, health, efficiency and whiteness that glows, this is music that offers no evidence that black people ever existed. Hitler could have listened to Abba and found nothing “degenerate” to object to. Not that I’m suggesting that Abba were Nazis. I’m sure that they counted many black people among their dearest friends. The fact that Frida’s father was a German soldier, that Bjorn once said the person he’d most like to meet was Napoleon and that Benny’s dog was called Isolde (after the Wagnerian opera) is scant evidence of any such leanings. But one suspects their musical popularity was down to its being “cleansed” of any ethnic input.

It’s no coindence that Australia and Japan, two of the most racist nations in the world, embraced Abba most wholeheartedly while America, the most multi-ethnic, resisted them stoutly. The consequence of this relentless purity, which might explain why some people afraid of the world is today find them cherishable, is that listening to their hits today is like chewing formica. Initially, the tinkling chimes of say, “Dancing Queen” and “SOS” are mildly refreshing, like tinkling spring water, But gradually, the plasticity, the bland, 90 degree turns the chords take, the flat, unmodulated pidgin English sentiments, the clockwork rhythms and dolly vocals make you long to fling filth at them. Frida and Agnetha make Kylie Minogue sound like Bessie Smith.

The sexual politics of Abba too, beggar belief. “Does Your Mother Know”, with Benny and Bjorn, the two squattest, ugliest men in pop leching away as the girls chirrup their Lolita-style chorus is bad enough but what about “Take A Chance On Me”? “If you change your mind/When the pretty birds have flown, honey I’m still free/Take a chance on me”. What self-respecting woman would consent to warble such sexist tosh, not insist it was amended to, “If you think I’m waiting around for a philandering slob like you all my life, you’re fucking well mistaken pal and I hope you catch the clap!” We are well rid of Abba. Irony and kitsch be damned. Abba were a blight on the 20th century. Never again . . .

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2000

The Stone Roses

In the Channel 4/HMV Music Of The Millennium poll, one album was adjudged to have eclipsed The Stones/Velvets/Hendrix/ Nirvana/ all Black music. Only Sergeant Pepper was deemed its superior. That album was The Stone Roses’ eponymous 1989 debut, voted Second Best Of All Time. Astral Weeks wasn’t a patch, Pet Sounds could kiss its baggy backside, who the fuck was Bob Dylan?

The Stone Roses? One wonders, like Tony Hancock in The Rebel, eyeing a shambolic, sub-Jackson Pollock canvas not dissimilar to John Squire’s cover artwork, “Who’s gone raving mad here?” It’s understandable the desperation for some sort of convulsive change in the late Eighties, with rock populated by a tired, farrago of tight black trousered jangle-strummers and pointy shoed underfed Goths but were people really this desperate?

That The Stone Roses was the catalyst for the freer, funkier, loose fit sound of the Nineties has more to do with the cut of their jeans and the fact that they gigged at Manchester warehouse raves at the right time, rather than their actual music. The Stone Roses were, supposedly, the point where rock absorbed the values of the acid house, smiley-smiley, dancey dancey scene, Britain’s own revolt into futurist colour to match 1967. Yet this album – musically reactionary, surly, egotistical and marinated in grey indie-isms – couldn’t have less to do with the happy, bouncy, selfless ethic/aesthetic of rave.

The Stone Roses was actually as long in the making as its notorious follow-up, which is why, in spite of lyrical boasts such as “The past is yours, the future’s mine”, it’s more redolent of dreary, forgotten indie combos like The Mighty Lemon Drops than any future sound, clothed in the second-hand, pastelly garb of 1986. “Waterfall”, with its wishy-washy psychedelia, “Sugar Spun Sister” and “She Bangs The Drums” are all standard paeans to the evanescent “She”, the It Girl of every knock-kneed indie boy’s wet dreams, a Julie Christie lookalike who’s into The Fall. This is the drivel both My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream had gotten out of the system BEFORE they made their masterpieces.

When The Stone Roses isn’t wistful, it’s truculent, revealing that anti-social streak which landed the band in endless squabbles, stand-offs and court cases offstage. But the threat of “Bye Bye Badman”‘s spleen, “I’m gonna throw stones . . I want you black and blue” is laughably undermined by its feeble, clippety-cloppety rhythms. The Stone Roses is, however, most revered for its daring boastfulness. But what is “I Wanna Be Adored” if not a rock’s own counterpart to Bros’ “When Will I Be Famous”? And what’s to adore? Brown’s weak warble, coupled with Squire’s epic doodles fail miserably in filling the song’s cavernous space. It’s like small boys playing at rock stars in a big basement.

As for “I Am The Resurrection”, the final track, it sounds more like the resurrection of a Ringo Starr solo single, before the band remember this is supposed to be the “future” and finally switch into a laboured funk-rock gear which the likes of A Certain Ratio and New Order would have laughed out of the studio years earlier. The Nineties have borne out The Roses’ unworthiness. Five years of bloodymindedness, laziness and litigiousness would follow before their second album but that wasn’t their undoing. Their real undoing is that they weren’t much cop, ever. Which is why the turgid The Second Coming would subsequently and indecently soon become available for  £4.99 at HMV, why The Seahorses are a bigger joke than The Shirehorses, why their Reading performance ranks among the worst in history and why Ian Brown has to act like an oversized spoilt kid on a plane to be of any interest these days. They’re not up to it, never were. Like Oasis, they were willed into being because of a collective desire for Something to Happen. But it happened anyway, with Happy Mondays inter alia. There was no need for this crap.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2000

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, the story of a brash magnate whose monstrous egotism precipitates his decline into loneliness and unconvincing baldness, is often dubbed the greatest ever movie. It has much going for it. The parallels between Kane and real-life multi-millionaire William Hearst and the latter’s semi-successful attempts to ruin Welles in cahoots with his ghastly gossip columnist Louella Parsons would make for a movie in themselves. There are also parallels between Kane and Welles, both cosseted through childhood, both dazzling successes at 25, both disillusioned and derided figures when they died.

Yet remove this brouhaha and biography and all that’s left is the movie itself, a precocious piece of pseudo-modernism, lurching from clumsy burlesque to Gothic broodiness. (Welles was always a Goth – on radio he’d already provided the deep-throated tones of a character called The Shadow and ended his career bedecked in a black cloak advertising sherry). Citizen Kane is not moving but jarring. The actors are all steeped in theatre, unused to the nuances of the screen. Which is why everyone seems to be shouting as if to reach the back row, like Everett Sloane’s creepy Mr Bernstein, who comes on like he’s doing the voiceover for an episode of “Hooray For Harold Lloyd!”. He jars, as does Kane’s mistress Susan Alexander, who screeches her lines as amateurishly as she does her opera.

Everyone mugs too hard, especially the young Kane’s harrumphing guardian Thatcher, whom the film can’t decide whether to cast as dark, Capitalist villain or mere clown – he’s part Peter Lorre, part Peter Glaze. All this over-registering to camera is especially unfortunate given photographer Gregg Toland’s tendency to get right in the faces of characters at every opportunity for no reason.

Citizen Kane is much praised for its camera work, its deep perspectives, dissolves, etc, yet these are virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. This is Welles the show-off, the magician, relishing the new toybox of cinema but still over-theatrical at heart. Much of Citizen’s Kane’s cinematography broadens rather than heightens the drama – much of the action takes place in darkness because, hey, we’re in the dark about Kane, geddit? Or it confuses. Why are so many scenes shot from ground level, such as the one of Kane after his election defeat, taken as if from the perspective of a ferret about to shoot up Welles’ trouser leg? Two reasons. Firstly, having to look up at the action is supposed to make us more awestruck by it, as if contemplating the Eiffel Tower. The other is to show off the fact that they built the studio sets with real ceilings. Clever, huh? Virtuoso, huh? Pointless, huh?

Welles’ performance is marred by his patently inadequate old man make-up. By the final reel, supposedly the most poignant, you can almost see the bathing cap slipping off his pate and his tears melting his painted-on creases. And what, finally, is Citizen Kane’s message? That money cannot buy you people, nor possessions bring true happiness. You’re better off with just a sledge. Yet even this trite homily, which underscores the film’s final twist, is scuppered by the penultimate line; “I don’t think one word can explain a man’s life”. So, er – why all this “Rosebud” business, then? Co-scriptwriters Welles and Herman Mankiewicz didn’t get along. Here, it shows. Either too dark or too light, too naturalistic or too contrived, Citizen Kane lacks the shades of grey necessary in a great movie, the humour and humanity. It’s guilty of all the crimes of its subject, too grandiose, too empty. Don’t worry, though – after this, Welles got much better . . .